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Taheya Karyoka was born in a small village in Egypt in 1919. Like any common Middle Eastern family, her parents did not approve of her passion for belly dancing since it was not “respectful” and shows off too much skin. Eventually, however, this young girl had a great impact on her country, its culture and politics.
When she first tried to pursue a career in belly dancing she faced abuse from her brothers. This led to her decision to move to Cairo with an old neighbor named Suad, who was a nightclub owner and artist.
Tahiya was tough and determined, she knew what she was doing and never let her anyone get in the way of her passion. When she initially moved to Cairo, she was asked to perform at nightclubs several times (which obviously pays a lot) but she always refused because she felt she was too pretty for a nightclub and not for a second did she want to downgrade herself.
Cairo was flourishing by the 1920’s and there were drastic changes in the art, music and dance scene. Ultimately, a cabaret culture emerged, which was very exciting and attracted the high society and elites of Cairo. By this point, Taheya was dancing at Casino Badiy, which became the most prominent cabaret that took on the status of the city’s hot spot.
She gained huge popularity very quickly. Soon she was asked to dance for King Farouk’s wedding procession in 1936; and dance along to the tunes of Om Kalthoum, who is regarded as the greatest Arabic female singer in history. Om Kalthoum once said that Taheya “‘was the only one who could sing with her body.”
By the 1940’s, Taheya was on the top of the fame ladder. Since it was a time of war, the nightlife scene increased along with the increase of bombs and killings in Egypt. Taheya was also acting in leading roles, primarily dance & musical comedies, which helped calm the people of Cairo during these tough times.
With her excellent knowledge in both English and French (that she taught herself) Taheya soon only allowed herself to dance for King Farouk and the royal family.
The rebel in Taheya does not only display her passion for pursuing belly dancing despite what her family and the community had to say, it pushed her to be a political activist. She was a founding member of the HDTO party in 1953 and constantly expressed her support for post-revolution return and promoted democracy. As a result of her rebellion, she was jailed for 101 days but this did not stop her, she also went on a hunger strike in support of her values. In 1987, she protested in support of workers’ unions.
With the spread of Islam in the 1980’s, Taheya wore the Hijab( veil) but never once regretted her profession and was very proud of her chosen career. She supported the entertainment business until the end of her life.
From dancing to signing to leading cinema roles, Taheya obviously did not give a F*&! She stood up against the conservative nature of her family, was married 14 times, including an American army officer during WWII. Edward Said, a Palestinian-American writer- once said that Taheya, “is not only a belly dancer, but an artist who played a role in shaping Egypt’s modern culture.”
Taheya is a figure that will never be forgotten in Egyptian history. She is an extremely independent and influential role model to all women, especially women who are oppressed either by their families or communities.